Since the mid-nineties, hip hop has conquered Cuba. From North America, rap arrived by the radio waves in Havana. In other parts of the island, like Santiago de Cuba, the influences of Jamaican dancehall and reggae came together with hip hop and Puerto Rican style reggaeton. Add to this the influences of the variety of Cuban music styles and a new hybrid is born: Reggaeton a lo Cubano, also called Cubaton. The Dutch music journalist Rik van Boeckel explored this new music wave; from Havana in the west, Santa Clara in the center and Santiago in the east.
The three members of Cubanito 20.02 are rappin' their song "Muevo tu Cuerpo" (Move your body), off of their first album "Soy Cubanito," at a quick and happy reggae beat. The way they rap is more similar to Jamaican raggamuffin' than to American hip hop. A wave of excitement goes though the Casa de la Musica, the main stage of Havana. Sensual and fashionable, that's how the young Cubans move on the dancefloor; in a way only Cubans can move.
The next song is "Pideme" (Ask me). The beats are produced by a turntable but sound like they come from a simple drum computer. It's the same way young reggae musicians from neighboring Jamaica produce dancehall. "U laca laca lah" they rap. These are sounds I hear from almost every window in Havana and even in every taxi cab. I dance with a Cuban mulatta salsa style to this energetic rap. Cubanito 20.02 likes to mix rap and reggae with their own Cuban music: son, rumba and salsa. They like Orquesta Aragon as much as they like Bob Marley and Eminem.
Together with the rappers of Máxima Alerta, Cubanito 20.02 make up the vanguard of the Cuban version of reggaeton, called Cubaton. French world music label Lusafrica released Cubanito 20.02's first CD, 'Soy Cubanito', in the summer of 2004 and the second, 'Tocame', in the autumn of 2005. In April 2005, Lusafrica released the first CD from Máxima Alerta, 'Llegaron los alertas'.
In very short time, Cubanito had a breakthrough in Cuba. Rappers White and El Doctor were members of Primera Base, a rap crew which was successful in 1995 during the Havana Rap Festival in Alamar - a suburb of Havana. At this Cuban government sponsored festival, there were also hip hop crews from the United States, Canada, Venezuela and Europe. American rappers who played there compared the atmosphere with the start of hip hop in New York. Rappers who produced lyrics which are critical of the Cuban system took the risk of getting arrested by the police.
White and El Doctor exercised their raps daily in the busses of the Cuban capital. There they met Flipper, a club DJ who was rappin' over a sound system. Together in 2002, they founded Cubanito 20.02. In 2003, they won a prize at Cubadisco (Cuba's main music fair). Nowadays they are called the guerilleros de Ragga Cubano. At the stage, they wear proudly the guayabera - the traditional Cuban shirt. They rap "Me gusta el reggae" (I love reggae) over a heavy ragga beat. This Cuban reggaeton is party music without social or political statements. That can be risky in Castro's Cuba.
A day after Cubanito's show, I leave Havana. I am travelling to Santa Clara, 200 miles east of the capital. Santa Clara is the town of Che Guevara; the Cuban legend was buried there in 1996. The giant statue of Che rises high above the town. He conquered the town during the Cuban revolution. It was the decisive battle of the revolution.
It's carnaval time in Santa Clara. Carnaval in Cuba starts on the 26th of July. During the day I am witness to the comparsa, the carnaval parade. Groups of conga players are walking through the streets accompanied by dancers and 'carrozas' (floats) in Brazilian, Spanish, African and Arab styles.
The parade also passes barrio Sandino, a quarter of Santa Clara. Salsa bands play on various stages in the barrio. On one of the stages I see a rap crew performing: Máxima Alerta. A black Cuban girl is dancing in between of them. The music doesn't come from a turntable but from a tape deck. They are breakdancin' as if their bodies are elastic.
They are rapping "Echar pa'lante" (go forward)... they raise their fists in the air... "Hasta siempre." This is a mix of hip hop with son - the traditional Cuban music made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club - and with the old revolutionary ballad of Carlos Puebla about Che Guevara. In the town of Che this rap has a special meaning.
"The best I can do
is to be loyal to you
to be loyal to my Cuba
to you, Che commandante."
With these words the rap of "Hasta Siempre" starts.
Cuban Hip Hop
"We mix American hip hop with son, salsa, merengue, cumbia and reggae," says Ray Machado (bandleader of Máxima Alerta). "Today, we call our music reggaeton." Compared to Cubanito 20.02, Máxima Alerta is less influenced by Jamaican music. The Cuban influence is stronger. They pay homage to Elio Revé, the singer of the changui; which, just like the son, is a music style that originates from the east of the island, Oriente. Máxima Alerta also uses a sample of Gloria Estefan's "The Conga."
"Hip hop on Cuba started in the eighties. In the beginning, nobody on Cuba liked rap," Ray Machado tells me. During that time, rap was even forbidden by the Cuban government because they thought it could be used for counter-revolutionary activities. Castro changed his mind when hip hop became popular among the Cuban youth, especially among the black Cubans. Today, Castro even sees rappers as potential new revolutionaries, as long as their lyrics are positive about the revolution.
"We don't rap about the political situation," Machado says. "Rap is a special way to talk about the situation in the country. On Cuba there are about 300 hip hop groups; and they all take a different line. We like more commercial raps. We want our raps to also be heard outside of Cuba. Cuban hip hop and reggaeton is strong enough to get success outside of Cuba just like what happens today with son and salsa."
Mix of Hip Hop With Cuban Music
"It's not easy to mix hip hop with Cuban music," Machado notes. "You have to listen carefully to see if it stays in the same line with the Cuban clave, the basis of our traditional music." Taktaktak taktak... He claps the rhythm with his hand to let me hear how the clave sounds. The rhythm of the clave is essential to Cuban music, not only for son, rumba and salsa but also for Cuban hip hop and reggaeton.
"You cannot copy gratuitously another style. There are rappers who try to imitate American gangsta style. That's ridiculous because there are no gangs here. Others' raps deal with living in the ghetto and working in the sugar industry as well as about going to the beach, parties, beautiful women and the beauty of Cuba."
Machado gives me a CD of his group: 'Llegaron los alertas' (Lusafrica 2005). The next day I play it in my discman on the bus that will bring me to Santiago de Cuba, in the eastern part of island. I listen to "Atacachumba," a quick Cuban rap in not so understandable Cuban Spanish. "Machete" is the next rap: a crossover of Cuban rumba with hip hop; salsa trumpets mix with a hip hop beat. An old farmer along the road is cutting sugar cane with a machete. He does that at the rhythm of the rumba rap. The shirt he wears - the guayabera - reminds me of the performance of Cubanito 20.02 in Havana. I put their CD "Soy Cubanito" in the discman and play the title track which expresses how they are proud to be Cubans."
"Soy enamorado de ti"... Santiago-based Candyman (real name: Ruben Cuesta Palomo), Cuba's most controversial artist, raps from behind a window in the Calle Felix Peña in Santiago de Cuba - one of the hottest towns of the island. You can hear the music of the 28 year old rapper all around the island, but it is here in Santiago de Cuba where he grew up. He is a pioneer in mixing ragga and dancehall with Cuban hip hop. He bridges the music of Cuba and Jamaica; Jamaica is situated directly under the eastern part of Cuba. With clear weather you can see the lighthouses of Jamaica from the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. His countrymen, like Candyman's Spanish street-talk-words, percolated to a mix of ragga and hip hop beats. A group of men playing domino on the corner of the Calle Calixta Garcia are laughing loudly about one of his funny lyrics. "Tendon con el fotingon." This is a rap about 'maricones' - Cuban homosexuals. His lyrics are full of sexual connotations.
Santiago de Cuba is the town with the biggest black population in Cuba. Immigrants from Jamaica, Haiti and other Caribbean islands came here to work and live. So, the Afro Cuban music is very vivid here in Santiago, alongside the son, raggamuffin' and reggaeton. Around the central Parque Cespedes where the rastafari every evening gather, you can hear how all the styles are blending. During the evening I am witness to a performance by the group Boncoenchemilla in the Casa de Estudiantes in the Calle Heredia, a side street of Parque Cespedes. Some guys offer me a glass of rum and invite me to go with them to another place. But I focus on the music and listen to the group's beats and rumba chants.
Boncoenchemilla is exploring the fusion of Afro Cuban rumba with hip hop. They are rapping over rumba rhythms produced by four congas and two cajones, wooden boxes which are played on the upperside. Rhythm and language are much different from American hip hop. However, freestyling over a rumba guacango they show how hip hop and rumba flow together in a natural way.
Reggaeton: From Panama and Puerto Rico to Cuba
Reggaeton artists have a lot of traditional influences in their music from the Caribbean. In Puerto Rico with underlying traditional rhythms like bomba and plena, in the Dominican Republic with merengue and bachata and in Cuba with traditional Cuban music influences. But the roots of reggaeton is the reggae and dancehall from Jamaica. Jamaicans working in Panama started in the seventies to rap over reggae beats. It was the first reggaeton, although, it was not called that. Reggaeton got its name from Puerto Rico. During the eighties, Puerto Rican rapper Vico C started to mix reggae and Spanish language hip hop and created the early reggaeton sound. Lyrics of Jamaican reggae were translated into Spanish in Panama as well in Puerto Rico. In the early nineties dancehall artist Shabba Ranks released the track "Dem Bow," whose beat and rhythm became the background for what we today know as the modern reggaeton.
Trespeso: Reggaeton Collective
"One of the definite styles that comes through in Santiago is the roots sound of old school Panamanian reggae," says Guabo, one of the founders of Trespeso. Trespeso is a music business and indie label for Santiago-based reggaeton artists with the main objective of distributing music internationally. Guabo comes from Auckland, New Zealand, but stays six months a year in Santiago de Cuba where he produces videos, tries to raise funds for recordings and smuggles in audio equipment needed by the artists. By doing this, his aim is to create commercial possibilities for the artists under the label Trespeso Music.
When I asked him why he started Trespeso, he answered, "On a personal level, I was sick and tired of being a taker. I wanted to give. I wanted to contribute to the Cuban Community and get involved in something positive. What is happening now is so much bigger than that. It's become a music business opportunity that's presenting real opportunities to better the quality of living for the artists in Cuba. Because of the embargo, I registered Trespeso Music in New Zealand - similarly to how Ry Cooder's Buena Vista was registered in Canada - as a 3rd party trade buffer zone because of the embargo. I say all this because it's an important part of our goal to defeat the embargo while it still exists. Like the Village People always said, 'you can't stop the music, nobody can stop the music'. But because of the political and economic situation, we are dependent on the ability to trade from a USA friendly country like New Zealand."
Guabo describes Trespeso as a collective of reggaeton musicians. "Santiago Trespeso is a we thing. It is a collective of people who work together as a family. Boncoenchemilla works, for example, together with Rezistencia, another reggaeton crew. It's an experimental project to fuse rumba and hip hop. I really want to do a mix of conga and reggaeton; I think that would be off the hook. Trespeso artists have a lot of traditional influences in their music, so many it's hard to distinguish."
In Santiago, old school dancehall, ragga and Panamanian reggae have been a big influence in the birth of this genre. "Trespeso's Silega y Joe is all Puerto Rican reggaeton and perreo to the extent that even people in Havana think they are from Puerto Rico, but they are Cuban. So Puerto Rican reggaeton along with American hip hop are all starting to influence the music in Santiago, where as in Havana, I feel that salsa and timba have influenced a lot of their sounds like Eddi K and Cubanos en la Red."
Silega y Joe
Guabo tells me there are many groups in Santiago. "Around 300 to 350 are actually recording tracks in some capacity. Remember, music is like sex to Cubans, so when they are bored or think 'oh what are we gonna do now', they simply start their own reggaeton or hip hop group. I mean there are new groups popping up all the time. However, the core group of talent that has been doing this for 5 years or more is probably only some 40 or 50 individuals."
I tell Guabo that I consider the Cuban reggaeton as more melodious than the reggaeton from Puerto Rico. I think of the reggaeton of Máxima Alerta, Cubanito 20.02 and Candyman compared to the well known stuff of Daddy Yankee and Don Omar. And of course, the reggaeton of Puerto Rico gets more worldwide attention than the style from Cuba because of the complete different relations which Puerto Rico and Cuba have with the USA.
Guabo gives me along answer. "Well, yeah OK. I will break it down like this. I smoke like 4 or 5 cigars a day. Cuban tobacco is the best, the world has known that for over 400 years. Yet, in America you have the media marketeers and tobacco companies telling you that Dominicans are as good or better. Shit, they even copied Cuban brand names. But you ask a real serious cigar smoker what's the best and he says, without any hesitation, 'Cubans! Cubans are the Best!'
"This Latin hip hop & reggaeton scene can be seen in similar contrast. Puerto Rico has no trade embargo. Like Cuba, they've got good talent. And it's important to acknowledge that Puerto Rico and Cuba are sister islands. But we know that if you gave Cuba's youth 5% of the access to technology, the Internet and decent audio equipment, they would be the Don Omars and Daddy Yankees of this genre. Without any doubt whatsoever! Regardless of the embargo or political situation, the music coming out of every little barrio in Cuba gives real cause to end the embargo and bring in a new era.
"Latin America is changing politically and economically at a very rapid rate, and what country is at the forefront of that change: Cuba! So the question comes, what's the music of this moment in history. Yes, it's reggaeton! It only makes sense that Cubans get the credit from their contribution to this Latin rising. I mean, Don Omar does "Reggaeton Latino" but he can't record that track in Cuba with Cuban artists because the lawyers from the his record company would say no way. Yet, he will use images from the Cuban Revolution to associate his music with this change that's taking place across Latin America and indeed the USA."
Buena Pistas Social Club
Guabo starts to talk about the new record he is going to make, with the ironic name Buena Pistas Social Club. The CD will initially be available this year through DMS (digital music stores) and iTunes.
"Ry Cooder did a good job at some things and a useless job at others," Guabo says when I ask him about the name. "Recently, he made some rude remarks about the rise of reggaeton and hip hop music in Cuba. We will release a CD and DVD. It will include exactly what Ry Cooder's Buena Vista missed: a lot of girls dancing. The visual aspect of Trespeso productions are important because we can't do a tour of Europe and the USA. The music on the CD will be polished and diverse. I feel there is a real diversity in Cuban reggaeton, but not so much in the hip hop because it's more of a platform for political expression. Reggaeton is as much a means of entertaining as it is expressing. The selection of tracks and artists on our 1st Buena Pistas Social Club CD is probably one on the most diverse mixes of Reggaeton Cubano you will ever hear on one CD. It has hints of Panama, Puerto Rico and Jamaica but yet in a true Cuban lyrical style without any compromise."
The diversity will range from the Puerto Rican style of Silega y Joe, a dancehall styled track of Rezistencia, Afro Cuban reggaeton mixed with R&B by Los Condes and the ragga reggaeton feel of Vatoz Locoz. Those are only some examples of the reggaeton that will be on this CD.
Also, before mentioned Candyman is a part of the social network of Trespeso, notes Guabo. "I think his older stuff is better. It's got that raw Jamaican and Panamanian sound. Yet it's 100% Cuban 'cause of his style and flow. As an artist, he has done more for the Cuban reggaeton than any other artist in or out of Cuba. Yet, he has suffered for that. He has sacrificed a lot because of his popularity. I mean he is known the world over. I know that in the USA he is known from Los Angeles and Miami to New York City and Chicago."
Finally, Guabo adds that Cuban Americans are showing support and flip out when they realize how much is going on with Cuban music, not only timba but also hip hop and reggaeton. And I will add, just as Cuban music in the past has won popularity all over the world, the newest music from Cuba has to make the big crossing to the rest of the world. For Máxima Alerta and Cubanito 20.02, it started with the release of their records by Lusafrica. There have already been documentaries made about Cuban hip hop and one will be released about Cubaton - Reggaeton a lo Cubano - with among others, Candyman and Cubanito 20.02; to be distributed by Warner Music.
This article was translated from dutch into english.